The Groundhogs’ Tony McPhee will stay a hero for the musically adventurous

The sketch cowl of the 1972 album Who Will Save the World? The Mighty Groundhogs depicts the trio as a band of superheroes – Highly effective Pustelnik, Fast Cruickshank and Marvellous McPhee – battling villains decided to overpopulate and pollute the world. However there’s a sting within the story. The superheroes are a dismal failure. Limping away from their victorious enemies, they rework into their “secret identities”: a “curiously contrived blues and rock group whose title coincidentally occurs to be the Groundhogs”. The ultimate panel thunders: “The rock group Groundhogs may even accomplish extra with music than the superhero Groundhogs ever will”, which, provided that the superhero Groundhogs have simply achieved completely nothing, is just not saying a lot.

The illustration was the work of celebrated Marvel and DC artist Neal Adams, however, with its self-deprecation and understatement, it appears very Tony McPhee, the Groundhogs’ singer and guitarist, who died on Tuesday. As guitar heroes of the late 60s and early 70s went – and even essentially the most cursory hearken to his terribly ingenious and highly effective taking part in on Who Will Save the World or its predecessors, Break up and Thank Christ for the Bomb, demonstrates how “guitar hero” was a soubriquet McPhee totally deserved – he was remarkably unassuming. Dressed down and resolutely unglamorous, he claimed his second spouse had left him as a result of he was “boring”.

He by no means appeared keen on the highlight. The Groundhogs bought plenty of data within the early 70s: after supporting the Rolling Stones on their 1971 UK tour, they discovered themselves subsequently filling the identical venues as headliners. However to the tip of his life, McPhee maintained that the spotlight of his profession wasn’t their run of High 10 albums however the time he had spent within the 60s as a sideman with John Lee Hooker. He downplayed his shift from taking part in straight blues to one thing extra experimental as merely a matter of pragmatism – “to maintain the Groundhogs working and recording” when the late 60s blues increase started to wane – which didn’t actually account for a way far out he was ready to take his music. Loads of blues gamers diverted into heavier territory, however few launched a 19-minute conceptual synthesiser piece bemoaning the cruelty of foxhunting and “the English higher lessons … [who] I detest”.

The Groundhogs proved influential on a bewildering number of youthful musicians – everybody from the Fall to Underworld to Queens of the Stone Age – however McPhee tended to underplay that, too. “It’s gratifying that individuals regard the music as nonetheless being related,” he advised an interviewer in 2019, and that was about so far as basking in his serried affect went.

The Groundhogs, London, 1974. Left to right: bassist Peter Cruickshank, drummer Clive Brooks and guitarist Tony McPhee.
The Groundhogs in 1974: (l-r) bassist Peter Cruickshank, drummer Clive Brooks and guitarist Tony McPhee. {Photograph}: Michael Putland/Getty Photographs

Maybe his phlegmatic angle to success and affect was a results of the Groundhogs’ classically exhausting 60s apprenticeship, throughout which he earned the nickname TS: the initials stood for Robust Shit.

There have been a few flop singles (their cowl of the Sly Stone-penned I’ll By no means Fall in Love Once more on star producer Shel Talmy’s short-lived label Planet tried to place them as purveyors of horn-assisted mod-friendly R&B), a stint appearing as supporting musicians for future Dangerous Firm bassist Boz Burrell, and an countless spherical of membership gigs, at which they usually carried out as a backing band for visiting blues legends: not simply John Lee Hooker, however Little Walter, Jimmy Reed and Memphis Slim. The latter was a task wherein the Groundhogs excelled: the album they made with Hooker in 1964, … And Seven Nights, was uncooked and highly effective. A clip of them performing Increase Increase reside on tv the identical 12 months exhibits a band eminently able to maintaining with Hooker’s fabled spontaneity and idiosyncrasies.

However even the lavish reward of their heroes – Hooker known as them “one of the best band in England” – couldn’t maintain them. They broke up in 1966, and McPhee briefly dabbled in pop-psychedelia with Natural Combination. Their second single, Machines, is definitely fairly good, and extremely prized by psych collectors, however you could possibly by some means inform McPhee’s coronary heart wasn’t in it: a person who had discovered his calling the second he encountered Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner’s Blues Included on the Marquee membership, he was not a fan of pop music, no matter whether or not it got here wearing a kaftan. When the success of Peter Inexperienced’s Fleetwood Mac urged the world was coming round to his mind-set, the Groundhogs reformed.

Their debut album, Scratching the Floor, was tight however rough-edged electrical blues: Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson covers; plenty of harmonica. Issues obtained heavier and weirder on 1969’s tellingly titled Blues Obituary – the songs a bit of longer, the tempos both sludgier or extra manic. McPhee’s fraught, expressive slide guitar soloing on Mild Was the Day an indication of the place issues have been headed. Thank Christ For the Bomb (1970) and Break up (1971) have been the albums on which the Groundhogs colonised a musical space that was uniquely their very own, or not less than existed someplace in between lots of the period’s prevalent rock traits.

With their songs impressed by grim drug experiences, alienation and the mordant humour of Thank Christ for the Bomb’s title monitor, they have been very a lot of their period – the dirty hangover on the finish of the 60s social gathering – however they have been too expansive to be lumped in with the bludgeoning proto-metal of Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep. There was a touch of progressive rock concerning the music’s contrasts and dynamic shifts, and a touch of the idea album about Break up, which turned the “month of terror and confusion” that adopted McPhee’s brush with LSD-laced marijuana right into a four-part epic, however the Groundhogs didn’t preserve snug firm with Sure or King Crimson both. They have been too uncooked and chaotic (their drummer Ken Pustelnik, McPhee defined, “simply wallops every thing in sight and typically I lose him fully … and Pete [Cruikshank, bassist] doesn’t assist both, as a result of he’s in all places. So once we crumble, we actually crumble”) and too defiantly rooted within the blues.

McPhee had developed a improbable, mush-mouthed vocal type that leaned in the direction of blues with out clearly imitating his American idols; he sounded dazed and pleading fairly than struttingly macho. They sometimes veered in the direction of the gritty, city, post-hippy world of Ladbroke Grove’s squat lands – there was an undertone of sophistication warfare to McPhee’s lyrics, and the back-to-the-land agrarianism hymned on Thank Christ for the Bomb’s Backyard includes scavenging “garments from heaps, my meals from bins” and “tramps for all my mates” – however he was too pyrotechnically expert a guitarist to suit with the thrilling ur-punk din of Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies.

He was additionally cussed (clearly he hadn’t been nicknamed Robust Shit for nothing), blissful to observe his muse into waters that alienated the Groundhogs’ rising following. Followers enticed by the livid energy of Break up’s most well-known monitor, Cherry Crimson, appeared baffled by 1972’s Who Will Save the World, with its jazzy leanings and Mellotron synthesiser. However their confusion solely appeared to spur McPhee on. Its successor, Hogwash, shifted even additional away from the albums that had made them well-known: extra complicated songs, extra abstraction, extra electronics, together with an early guitar synthesiser. McPhee’s 1973 solo album, The Two Sides of Tony (TS) McPhee, had an A aspect of acoustic blues songs and a B aspect consisting fully of The Hunt, a rare 19-minute monitor carried out fully on an ARP 2600 synthesiser and a primitive Rhythm Ace drum machine, McPhee’s voice sharing area with passages of spoken phrase and moments that sound like musique concrète or Suicide.

McPhee’s The Hunt, all 19 minutes of it.

It was fairly a option to carry the Groundhogs’ second within the business solar to a crashing conclusion. The extra simple Stable, from 1974, did not make the High 30 and spent just one week on the charts. They broke up shortly afterwards.

After they returned two years later, with McPhee the one member remaining from their early 70s power-trio lineup, it was with a noticeably totally different, softer sound. Crosscut Noticed and Black Diamond have so much to commend them and McPhee’s taking part in nonetheless tends to leap aggressively out of the audio system, however their radio-friendly sheen is a world away from Break up. Thereafter, McPhee’s profession performed out between largely acoustic solo work and new variations of the Groundhogs; occasional new releases have been swamped by reside albums and archive collections.

That he was by no means in need of youthful musicians to work with says one thing concerning the extent of the Groundhogs’ affect. The sound of McPhee wrenching superior swoops and screams out of his guitar on Backyard, or of the jagged, impassioned soloing on Break up Half 4, had a once-heard-never-forgotten high quality: lots of his followers turned musicians themselves.

Mark E Smith might effectively have appreciated the unbending, Robust Shit side of McPhee’s strategy as a lot because the music: when the Fall lastly coated the Groundhogs’ Junk Man, on 1994’s Center Class Revolt, it was exhausting to work out whether or not the songwriting credit score to “Tony McFree” was a misprint or a sly tribute.

McPhee performing in 1998.
McPhee performing in 1998. {Photograph}: Brigitte Engl/Redferns

After the mud settled, it turned out the Damned and Pleasure Division have been followers. Peter Hook proclaimed them “completely revolutionary”. “They have been the primary band I ever noticed reside they usually’ve been a continuing in my life ever since,” mentioned Underworld’s Karl Hyde, who subsequently tried to collaborate with McPhee. The outcomes have by no means been launched.

They made their mark on grunge, too. Sub Pop’s producer of alternative, Jack Endino, apparently performed the Groundhogs to any artist he labored with, an inventory that included Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus mentioned his all-time favorite album was Thank Christ for the Bomb. Queens of the Stone Age coated Eccentric Man from the identical album. Most just lately, Alex Turner claimed the Groundhogs have been an affect on Arctic Monkeys’ AM.

A 2009 stroke severely curtailed McPhee’s profession. It left him with dyspraxia, unable to sing, though he nonetheless carried out reside. In 2014, the 12 months he introduced his retirement, he was to be discovered on stage with Present 93, guesting on their cowl of 1974’s Unhappy-Go-Spherical: a person who had kicked off his profession with John Lee Hooker performing half a century later with one of many main lights of the post-Throbbing Gristle esoteric underground. Unassuming as he was, his music had been on fairly a journey, one which’s unlikely to finish along with his demise.

“I used to be by no means modern,” he advised an interviewer not way back, however that meant that his music in the end transcended style: because the period that spawned them fades into historical past, Thank Christ for the Bomb, Break up and the remaining are albums you think left-field artists will all the time be drawn to. That remaining panel of the Who Will Save The World? The Mighty Groundhogs cartoon turned out to be completely proper.

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